The late Gyearbuor Asante, who famously played long-term mature student Matthew in hit British sitcom Desmond’s, was also a royal.
He came from Tafo, Kwahu, a town in Ghana’s Eastern Region but rather than follow tradition and become a chief, the young thespian got himself circumcised instead.
The reason, according to details from charity the Friends of Tafo (Kwahu), was to rule himself out of enstoolment.
He then left Ghana in the late 1960s to become an actor and the rest, as they say, is history. But life has a funny way of panning out and although Gyearbuor never became a chief, his close friend Humphrey Barclay, who incidentally was the executive producer of Desmond’s, did!
“I met Gyearbuor (or Christopher as he was known in UK then) in 1972, when he was doing such shows as Crown Court and so on,” he told MisBeee. “I visited Ghana many times as his guest and when he died in 2000 at the age of 58 of clogged-up arteries, I was the only obruni (white man) at his funeral.”
That’s where the Tafohene (the chief of Tafo) – Nana Ameyaw Gyensiama III – came up with the idea of making Humphrey a chief. It is reported that the Tafohene said that the chieftaincy role Humphrey took was the one Gyearbuor died before he could accept.
Fitting, when you consider Humphrey’s official title is Kwadwo Nana Ameyaw Gyearbuor Yiadom I.
During his 14-year tenure as Nkosuohene (development chief) of Kwahu Tafo, Humphrey split his time between Britain and Ghana, raising much-needed funds for the area.
In Britain, he helped mastermind a comedy and musical gala in 2004 which ran annually until 2014, at London’s Hackney Empire.
“The Empire Strikes Black’ and ‘Strictly Come Laughing’ galas relied on the phenomenal goodwill of stars from all over the black comedy circuit, who always gave their services entirely freely,” Humphrey said.
Monies raised, which amounted to £100,000 over the decade, went to Friends of Tafo – the UK charity established after Gyearbuor’s passing.
Humphrey retired as Nkosuohene in 2014, but remains an elder in the community. During his tenure, he oversaw the rebuilding of Kwahu Tafo Senior High School. In 2003, the school consisted of one row of classrooms, with four pupils and no paid teachers. By 2007, it was transformed into a major campus with 650 enrolled students, 25 staff, and government recognition.
“It was a great privilege,” said Humphrey. “When one’s doing charity work it’s usual to be channelled into one particular area — say, old people, poverty, education, health.
“But as development chief for a whole community you are engaged in everything — from lavatories to music! And as with my television work, what charms me is being involved in the development of talent.”
Talking of talent, Barclay has been flying the flag for artisans and artists in Ghana. One artist in particular is Accra-based Christopher Charway who was commissioned to paint scenes from Kwahu for the Kwahu Tourism Initiative.
Some of these paintings were put up for sale at a recent charity event organised by The Ghana Society. Half of the proceeds from the sale of his paintings went to Friends of Tafo.
“I love the vigour and life that’s in his paintings,” said Humphrey, who still regularly visits Ghana. “Christopher pours his soul on to the canvas every day, and can make us see patterns and vibrancy in the world around us.
“Once you’ve seen a Charway painting, you will never look at Ghanaian traffic, or fishermen, or musicians the same way again. He deserves to be better known.”
Black British comedy
And on the subject of fame, Desmond’s is undergoing a revival on British screens thanks to the airing on TV channel London Live. Despite being 26 years old, it seems no other Black British comedy has been able to surpass it in terms of quality and duration.
“It is not that the talent is not there: the fault lies with the TV bosses who don’t want to make it happen — and when they do, they don’t go to the right black talent, because they are ignorant of its existence and they don’t dare give it a chance.
Ghana or Guyana
Desmond’s creator Trix Worrell was committed to remaining culturally authentic in the sitcom. So that is why Desmond and Shirley, played by Norman Beaton and Carmen Munroe, played characters from their native Guyana.
Even Shirley’s sister Susu, played by Mona Hammond, had a sub-text written into her character to explain why her accent was Jamaican and not Guyanese. But what was a constant debate in my house was why the clearly Ghanaian-accented Matthew was ‘from The Gambia’.
There was a concern that the phonetic similarity between Ghana and Guyana would confuse audiences, Humphrey explained. It was Gyearbuor that elected to change his character’s home country to The Gambia to avoid confusion. All the African sayings he quoted in the sitcom, however, remained Ghanaian!
After Norman’s passing, a spin-off show featuring fellow cast member Porkpie briefly aired but failed to garner the same following as Desmond’s and was scrapped.
With Gyearbuor gone and Carmen in her 80s, Humphrey confirmed that there are no plans for a return of the show….not even a one-off special. But Humphrey is still in touch with some of the cast.
“I see Carmen and took her to Ghana a few years ago. Robbie (Lee Stanley) supported us throughout the Hackney shows,” he said. “Ram John (Porkpie) used to appear in them too. We are all good friends and very thankful that we had such a good time and did such a good show together — which is still funny today!”
And Trix’s son is a would-be film maker with an exciting project in mind, Humphrey added.
But the last word should go to honouring Gyearbuor.
“He was wickedly funny, passionate about acting, and, as one of his admirers said, ‘full of grace’.
And that is rather charming, because he was Kwabena, born on Tuesday, and in the old English rhyme ‘Tuesday’s child is full of grace’,” Humphrey said.
By Kirsty Osei-Bempong
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